The Shaar Players and Fame…
Reminiscing about the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue’s youth theatre program
By Carmen J. Michaud
Photomontage by James St Laurent
There was a time, shortly after I had left the brand and shop I had created when I was looking for the next experience, the next challenge. I was teaching two nights a week at LaSalle College. My friend, dancer-choreographer Phillip Cole called and asked if I would like to work with him, as stage manager, on a play. I had worked on several crews of plays in earlier years and thought this might be great fun.
The Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, at that time, sponsored the Shaar Players, a program that highlighted the talents of the children of the community.
As each person who joined had to be given a place, and this play had few major characters, I offered some scriptwriting talent to add characters and hone the play to the environment, without losing the integrity, the feel of the play.
At the time, we thought only this play had come to an end but it became clear that in 1994, the Shaar Players were nearing an end with Fame… the Musical.
I was impressed by the dedication shown by these young talents. The idea that, as this was a contemporary play, it would be OK for them to wear their clothes was simply not acceptable. I got cracking finding clothes for them. I found some within the wardrobe in the Shaar storage room from previous plays that worked, with some alterations, for some of the “play-acting”. I borrowed clothing from The Little Shop for the “theatre student vibe”, and rummaged through my wardrobe. Estetica agreed to do hair and make-up. This all helped to present a more professional look, and allow the actors to shine.
And shine they did.
The applause was thunderous. The reviews were great. And we were sorry it had come to an end. At the time, we thought only this play had come to an end but it became clear that in 1994, the Shaar Players were nearing an end with Fame… the Musical. There would be one last presentation, A Chorus Line the next year.
Quite a few of the actors had been in earlier productions such as Little Shop of Horrors, Into The Woods and Annie Get Your Gun and had worked in film and in theatre outside the Shaar Players. I reached out to a few who are still involved in the performing arts, and one who is, notably, not, and posed two questions, followed by some Proustian Questions.
- Fame… the Musical was my only experience with the Shaar Players. Although there were some challenges, my overall impression was one of creativity and drive. I think there is something special about the experience of many talents coming together. Would you care to share your memory or impression of this play, or perhaps, another play you worked on at the Shaar?
- You’ve continued in the performing arts. What are you doing now? How did your experiences in youth theatre influence you, or train you?
Burlesque alter-ego Miss Sugarpuss; playwright Miss Sugarpuss Must Die; appearances and voiceovers in film, television and commercials
Performing with the Shaar Players, first in Fame… The Musical, and then in A Chorus Line the next year, was a seminal part of my musical theatre training and remains to this day a cherished part of my life. I still know many of the people with whom I sang and danced thanks to the dubious Facebook machine, and I remember many of the moments with the creative team that helped me understand the kind of discipline and rigour required if I was going to continue in the theatre.
I remember a kind of sternness from the musical director, which was both intimidating and sobering, so that when I would hit the right notes and receive positive feedback, the feelings of satisfaction were immense. I was so thrilled to get to dance with the late great Phillip Cole, our beloved choreographer, and his partner Don Jordan is still my teacher today.
We were a bunch of awkward kids thrown together into something fairly sophisticated in terms of its budget and scope, and I remember feeling grateful to be treated like an adult by the team. Luckily, some of the alumni from the Shaar and I got together to start producing and starring in our musicals many years later as One Foot Productions. We probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without the bedrock of knowledge we got from the Shaar Players team!
I am a professional actor/singer, and I still occasionally perform in professional theatre, though it’s hard to get parts in Montreal. I’ve tried my hand at the Toronto scene, but it is way more competitive than I could ever have imagined. I’ve been very lucky to continue my professional acting career in film, television and voice work for cartoons and video games, though my heart is in the theatre.
Many of the lessons and the theatrical “etiquette” cues I learned at the Shaar still serve me to this day. For example, even though my part in Fame was small, I started to understand the importance of a strong ensemble, and that there are no small parts. I love being part of ensemble pieces because you can focus on what you communally bring to the table. It’s also a very good way to keep the ego in check.
‘We were a bunch of awkward kids thrown together into something fairly sophisticated in terms of its budget and scope, and I remember feeling grateful to be treated like an adult by the team.’
I still have a letter that Carmen wrote to me as a closing night gift, in which she reminded me that “If you don’t want to do something, say so. Don’t risk losing the confidence of someone who believes in you. As I do.” I knew exactly why she had written that to me: one day I had skipped rehearsal and ran into her. I was mortified, though she never said anything to me. When I received the letter on closing night, I knew that I could never tell fibs like that again.
That moment taught me to manage my time properly, and to always try to make sure that I am aligned with my sense of integrity on projects, even if they are sometimes tedious or not quite what I love. In professional acting, you don’t always get a choice about the content of the project, but you can choose how you react to things. Being a rebellious teenager that day taught me that there were always choices to be made and that I’d have to be more judicious in how I made them. I’m very grateful to Carmen and to the other professional artists that I can still call my peers and colleagues for all the lessons learned. Fingers crossed for a reunion!
What is your greatest extravagance?
Cruelty-free and high-quality skincare and cosmetics. And books. Tons of books.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
What is your most treasured possession?
A mid-century clay sculpture of a woman’s figure that belonged to my paternal grandmother. Not easy to lug around in an emergency, but there you have it.
Burlesque alter-ego Elle Diabloe; teacher of dance, burlesque
I have nothing but the fondest of memories when it comes to the Shaar Players. I am still in contact and, in certain cases, still working with people I met during the three shows I did with them, which is quite something when you consider that it’s been over 20 years.
Given that I was maybe 15 or 16 at the time, I don’t recall being clued into any of the issues faced in terms of production. What I do remember is feeling very fortunate for the opportunity afforded by the Shaar Players. While it was amateur theatre, we had wardrobe and professional hair and makeup which, at the time, was very exciting. We were given the ability to work with professional directors and choreographers and some of the lessons learned have carried me through until today.
I had worked on musicals before, either at school or summer camp, but getting to perform on the stage at the Shaar somehow seemed so much bigger, more professional. And while I can only imagine the budget required to put up shows like the ones we did at the Shaar, it saddens me that the Shaar Players no longer exist.
I have continued to perform for the last 20 years. While I have had the opportunity to do some theatre, I have shifted my focus to burlesque. I have also continued to dance and to teach dance.
I think I have been influenced by my experience in youth theatre. Being involved in a large ensemble production taught me about commitment and dedication. While it was amateur theatre, the experience taught me about what it meant to be a professional or at least to behave professionally.
‘We were given the ability to work with professional directors and choreographers and some of the lessons learned have carried me through until today.’
I teach a group burlesque class now, and I am extremely concerned with group dynamics, and working together. I believe that working in a large group, toward a common goal, has taught me to put the work first, and my ego second.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being in flow – that moment where all of your energy is focused on the task at hand and it feels effortless because you are exactly where you are meant to be, doing exactly that thing that you are meant to be doing.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Lack of purpose and a lack of voice or the inability to self-express.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I have to pick one? Indecisiveness.
Lead singer and business owner of The Directors (appeared in Barney’s Version as Wedding Band)
My experience at the Shaar Hashamayim was extremely memorable and left a lasting impression. Having participated in many youth programs (Beth Tikvah players along with numerous camp, school and community plays), my experience at the Shaar proved to be one of the most rewarding. I performed alongside talented cast members in Fame… the Musical and I played Annie in Annie Get Your Gun.
I learned so much in my experience there. Phillip Cole added extra professionalism and pushed the performers, bringing about high-level performances that were surprisingly very accomplished for the youth players and added a calibre which brought about media attention. This is an experience I will never forget. It was a springboard into the world of Performing Arts, which I will give thanks to forever and always.
I went on to full-time music and performance. I am currently the business owner and lead singer for Montreal’s most sought after showband The Directors. We perform at weddings, galas, fundraisers, corporate and public events. I believe that the training that I received at the Shaar helped me to not only hone my skills as a performer but also gave me team skills which I use each and every day.
Also, I run and operate a live music talent agency called Direct Entertainment Group. Through his company, we book and manage a large network of musicians and other talented live artists to create customized acts for private and public events.
‘Phillip Cole added extra professionalism and pushed the performers, bringing about high-level performances that were surprisingly very accomplished for the youth players…’
I believe that there should be more live theatre opportunities of this kind in Montreal for up and coming and seasoned performers. It gives artists a place to get involved in productions both from a stage performance perspective but also from a production standpoint. Many of my fellow performers from the Shaar have gone on to achieve great success in the arts. I wish them all great success in the future.
What is your most marked characteristic?
What do you most value in your friends?
Trust and mutual respect.
On what occasion do you lie?
Never. Telling someone they have something in their teeth is the best thing you can do for them. I’m one of those people…
Jazz singer with three releases, the latest World’s Apart
I loved working on Fame! It was refreshing to be able to work with young people from other schools who were also really passionate about the arts. I loved working with the production team as well. I felt like we were taken seriously as artists – not just kids doing a community show.
I think any time a group comes together with a shared goal there are lots of magical moments. Ultimately, when it’s a creative endeavour that people are contributing to with their hearts, the results are usually quite beautiful. I felt that way with this show.
I have had some wonderful collaboration in my field of music but the intense rehearsal process that theatre provides allows people to grow together, to build something that lives and breathes and has a distinct end. It’s unique in that way and something I still covet. Being able to do that with a cast of my peers was empowering and tremendous fun.
Although I’m sure there were some, honestly I don’t remember any challenges other than struggling to clap on the 2 and 4 during the gospel section of Bring on Tomorrow in the finale.
I worked on one other Shaar show, A Chorus Line. Several cast members from that show have become lifelong friends. I have fond memories of going to this delightful cafe in Westmount, Encore Une Fois, after rehearsals with some cast members and ordering Orange Oolong Tea. It was below Sherbrooke tucked away amidst some residences in a building that felt like a converted house.
My affiliation with the Shaar Players helped to solidify my commitment to a life in the arts. Currently, I work as a jazz vocalist/composer/arranger/lyricist. I tour extensively across Canada with my recording project and not so long ago teamed up with acclaimed tap dancer Danny Nielsen on his show, Love.Be.Best.Free.
‘I loved working on Fame! It was refreshing to be able to work with young people from other schools who were also really passionate about the arts.’
The training I received in youth theatre was invaluable to my career as a musician. It’s a tough business (most everyone says that because it’s true) but the focus and resilience learned and practiced as a young theatre artist have given me a leg up.
I think the performance elements I developed as an actor have also set me apart in my field. For me, it’s not just about creating beautiful or interesting music. The notion of connecting with a live audience in a living-breathing moment where anything can happen is what still excites me about performing. For me, there is a symbiotic relationship between me and the audience. I like to share stories and show myself – these things have been ingrained in me through my years of training as an actor/performer.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
A kindred spirit.
Where would you most like to live?
Montreal (in the summertime).
Actor (appearing now in Murdoch Mysteries), teacher, writer
‘Youth theatre gave me a chance to sharpen my skills before moving on to theatre school. It was invaluable.’
At the time, there weren’t a lot of outlets for kids interested in the performing arts within the community. And the Shaar players did things on such a large scale and gave us kids a chance to collaborate with working theatre professionals. I know things have evolved since then and other opportunities have presented themselves but the size and importance of a Shaar players show made it unique. For us, it was the only game in town.
I’m working as an actor and teacher in Toronto. I’ve performed at regional theatres throughout Ontario, written and performed my own work, done the odd commercial and recently made my series debut in Murdoch Mysteries. I’m about to go into rehearsal for Box 4901, which will be performed at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this coming February and March. I also teach drama and improv.
Youth theatre gave me a chance to sharpen my skills before moving on to theatre school. It was invaluable.
When and where were you happiest?
Whenever I’m working.
What do you most value in your friends?
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Director, writer of Wrecked (theatrical release starring Adrien Brody), director of shorts, video
Fame… the Musical was only the second time I had ever acted on stage. I acted in a play in high school a few years earlier – Agatha Christie‘s Witness For The Prosecution, where I played Sir Wilfred, the lead character. That was the first time I had ever acted on stage, and once it was done, I honestly believed it was going to be my last.
That experience, however, seemed to ignite something inside me and I subsequently pursued film and theatre at Dawson College. My two years there opened my eyes to the theatre and it was around that time that I became aware of the Shaar Players. I was friendly with a few of them and decided to join them and audition for Fame… the Musical. I was not a dancer. I was not a singer. You could argue I wasn’t even an actor, but for some reason, which I can no longer remember, doing a musical seemed like a good idea to me at the time!
I think what stands out to me the most about my experience doing the play is how many talented people there were and how collaborative everyone was. It had such a lasting and powerful effect on me that it turned out to be something I wanted to do for the rest of my life: bring talented and creative people together in a heightened and electrifying environment, full of excitement and tension, for the sole purpose of entertaining and telling a story. It’s something I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I feel lucky enough to be able to do it.
‘… watching the director of the play, Phillip Cole, had enough of an influence on me to want to investigate more of what a director does and how I can do that.’
I have this distinct memory of standing on stage at the Shaar Synagogue and thinking to myself that I never want to be on stage again and that acting or being in front of the camera was not a place for me. However, watching the director of the play, Phillip Cole, had enough of an influence on me to want to investigate more of what a director does and how I can do that.
One year after the play, I moved to Toronto where I did my undergraduate degree in film production and theory. I wrote and directed short films that won awards across Canada. Those films got me accepted into the directing program at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, California, where I completed a two-year Master’s degree in film directing. And all that together is what helped launch my career as a motion picture writer and director.
Who is your hero of fiction?
Howard Roark, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Read this book in my teens. Inspired me to follow my dreams at any cost.
Who are your heroes in real life?
My maternal grandfather. His story inspires me every day to create.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Not seeing the path forward.
And the player who took a very different path….
Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative for Canada to the U.N.
I did many plays before Fame, mostly high school productions, but none afterwards.
It’s very silly, but of the entire experience, I remember most vividly my audition. I sang a song by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I did not have a good voice then, nor do I now but it was among the first times I became consciously aware of the importance of focusing on relative strengths. That growing sense was reinforced throughout the production: the best theatre always involves the sum eclipsing individual parts.
I earned my undergraduate degree from McGill University in an interdisciplinary programme called North American Studies, a bit of an art buffet for those who did not necessarily know what they wanted to study but allowed participants to consider the same time periods from different vantage points. While at McGill, I undertook an exchange programme with American University in Washington DC where I focussed on foreign policy and interned at the Nixon Centre for Peace and Freedom. That experience was highly formative. Following a gap year spent travelling around the Mediterranean, I earned my graduate degree in conflict analysis at Carleton University.
‘A good actor learns how to truly listen… and not just for their cues, but rather for the content of what is being said or being left unsaid. Diplomacy is very much the same.’
Did your experiences in youth theatre influence you, or contribute in some way to your current life in diplomacy?
A good actor learns how to truly listen – to the other actors on the stage, to directors, stage managers and musicians and the audience – and not just for their cues, but rather for the content of what is being said or being left unsaid. Diplomacy is very much the same. A good diplomat needs to know how to listen, and how to let others know that they have been heard. My youth theatre experience was a fertile training ground in this (and other) respects.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Public service. Empowering others. Ideas resonating. Fully healthy and forward-moving family. Running (and finishing) strong.
What is the trait that you most dislike in yourself?
What is the trait you most dislike in others?
Lack of integrity, mean-spiritedness, arrogance.
Photomontage: James St Laurent
Carmen J. Michaud likes to write (and paint) and is majoring in Curiosity.
James St Laurent – My work consists of finding subjects to photograph that will engage the viewer by presenting a visual paradox through images with an emotional context. Different types of subjects and genres require different approaches, but the end result is always a unique and convincing image that captures attention. The obvious is easy – the unique takes a little more time. jamesstlaurent.com